On March 18, 2011, Nassima Abd al-Halim’s son Mahmoud was killed by a sniper’s bullet on the street in Libya’s Misrata. Less than a month after, the rebels came to her with a captured soldier from Qadhafi’s forces, telling her he was slated for execution. They handed her a gun, he turned his back to her, and she killed him.
On April 9, 2014, in Iran, Samereh Alinejad stepped toward her son’s killer, who had a noose around his neck. She removed his blindfold and slapped him, forgave and pardoned him. Her action sparked a renewed campaign against capital punishment in Iran.
In January 2014, newspapers reported that Laila Marzouk, mother of Khaled Said, the torture victim beaten to death by Egyptian police in 2010, who has still not seen any verdict for her son’s killers, expressed admiration for Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s “humanity.”
On the Arab screen, in a temporarily women-only community in an imaginary village fantastically set in the cultural and social reality of Upper Egypt, the women in Araq al-Balah (Date Wine, Radwan al-Kashif, 1999) commit an honor crime by killing one of their own after being shamed by men from an adjacent village: “Men abandoned the village, and the women are impregnated.” In Al-Tawq wa al-Iswera (The Collar and the Bracelet, Khairy Beshara, 1986) Hazina informs her son of her granddaughter’s adulterous pregnancy, and watches in anticipatory grief as the girl’s uncle and cousin fight over who will wash away the shame with blood. Apparently, the Upper Egyptian mother who preserves the legacy of husband and father and incites her children to revenge has become an archetype in Egyptian dramatic tradition. In Al-Massiir (Destiny, Youssef Chahine, 1997), set in an earlier era across the Mediterranean, Manuela the gypsy repeatedly slaps a member of the fanatic group that killed her husband, an Andalusian singer, curses him and then hugs him.
As varied as these women and their experiences are, individually or collectively, in reality or in fiction, in revolutionary times or in earlier or later times, in war or in peace, none bear similarities to the women of Halla’ la Wayn? (Where Do We Go Now?, Nadine Labaki, 2011).
The premise of Where? is reminiscent of Lebanon’s modern history. In the mid-1980s, during the Lebanese Civil War episode known as the War of the Camps, marked by the Shia-Shia sub-conflict between Hezbollah and Amal militias, an all-women protest took to the streets of Dahieh, the Shia-dominated southern Beirut suburb, to condemn the infighting between brethren of the same faith. The protest was soon dispersed with gunshots from their armed men.
In contrast, in an Al-Jazeera documentary (Women Warriors, 2009) on the role of women in the Lebanese Civil War, Christian and Muslim female warriors relate how they carried and used weapons at a young age: unwillingly and willingly, for revenge, battles, attacks and assassinations. Some express love for weapons, naming their favorite types. One came from a border village. At least six of the eight agree that they do not have regrets, nor any sense of loss, but rather a sense of strength and accomplishment. Only one mentioned a negative: people viewing her as a “manly” woman, which many of them didn’t see to be the case — rather quite the contrary. Another said that she preferred not to aim at heads to avoid seeing fragments of brains.
But wait, perhaps we should not jump to the conclusion that Labaki’s film is even related to Lebanon: Not only is it set in an imaginary village like al-Kashif’s, the village is also referred to as “Middle Eastern” in reviews and synopses, possibly at Labaki’s suggestion. In one article, an interviewer mentions that it is a remote, unnamed Lebanese village. In the film itself, Lebanon is never mentioned, and the narrator’s voice (the voice of Amal, the character Labaki plays in the film) sets the village in a folktale atmosphere. The time setting of the film is undefined, and even by inference from indications in the film (like installing a satellite dish and the reported news) or external references (like the following statement), the time remains ambiguous.
According to the filmmaker, the film was inspired by the events of May 2008, when fighting broke out between Hezbollah and the coalition that opposed Hezbollah, Syria and Iran — a political sectarian conflict pertinent to the history of the Lebanese Civil War. Trapped inside her home, Labaki contemplated the possibility of yet another war. The same day, she found out she was pregnant. Imagining her child growing up and joining the militiamen everywhere on the streets — for protecting one’s family can be very tempting for young men — she wondered what she could do to stop him.
So we cannot classify this (political?) film as a historical one, considering the lack of history presented in the background or the drama itself. Is it safe to resort to the social reality — as in Date Wine — without a time reference? According to some Lebanese critics, Labaki’s village is greatly influenced by the typical fictional village of the Rahbani brothers, which gives it an allegorical quality (see here and here). The Rahbani village is historically and geographically “isolated from the world”. But as the trenches and mines surrounding the film’s village suggest, this isolation only took place after the end of the war, but we’re not sure. And did Amal lose her husband 20 years ago or 10 years ago? Since the birth of her child, who appears in a scene full of hope and fear in which she kicks quarreling young men out of the café? Is that even her child? Did the young generation in the village witness the war? What has changed in that unknown period of time? Some critics reckon the film is set in the 1990s.
Therein lies the first of the film’s three dangerous elements. As critics have pointed out, it is mainly attractive, at least to Lebanese viewers, due to the abstraction of the tragedy taken out of its complex context, without any discussion, analysis or even references (see here and here).
The second danger lies in the sweet and humane quality of the movie, and the resulting emotional effect. One critic attributes a certain “heart and anger” to the film which “offset its structural fuzziness.”
Dramatically and technically, the film makes us laugh and cry. Even the “aesthetic extravaganza” pointed out by one critic (it seems that setting rural events in visually idyllic countryside is an entrenched tradition in Arab cinema), works largely to that effect when the heavenly peace of the village is suddenly disturbed and almost ruined. Dramatically speaking, the film’s form and content pivot on the storytelling; its strength relies on a traditional story. There is no substantial use of modern narrative techniques, for a more complex narration: streams of consciousness, internal monologues, or flashbacks. The attempt at inserting a documentary element, through news reports, quickly fades. The village women conceal events from the men to maintain peace, but Labaki also conceals almost everything from viewers, the very universe of the film as well as its context. But in order to maintain what?
The allegory presents a village with two religious communities that has witnessed a civil war (a mere sectarian conflict, the film would suggest), that spread to it from the rest of the country. External violence suddenly resumes, disrupting a collaborative media and entertainment project that is being carried out by the village women. Soon after, a mysterious event sparks sectarian strife, following an incident viewed by the omniscient narrator, when the cross of the village church breaks and the adolescent Christian culprit doesn’t own up, even after ominous developments. The story has two lines: exacerbation on the side of the men, and the pacifist tricks of the women. These tricks take an interesting form that recalls con artist movies, to the extent that two critics (see here and here) refrained from revealing the last trick so as not to spoil it. In the surprise happy ending, the women finally succeed because their final solution is indeed a magical one!
The third and possibly gravest danger is the aforementioned role of women. One critic understands this role, with reservations, biologically: woman directly threatened as mother. Yet Amal’s clamorous cafe monologue, and scenes of the mother of Nassim, the victim, burying him alone, not disclosing his death, then shooting her other son’s leg to protect him and the village (arguably unconvincing as they are) are pit against a vague monolith of sons and fathers, without an attempt to analyze this taken-for-granted maternal reality. However the problem goes far beyond a mere mischaracterization.
For why would we think or hope that women (not feminists) represent a counterculture or, in Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci’s term, a “common sense” counter to hegemonic masculinity (manifested here only in a militaristic tendency, not in anything else affecting women)? Labaki’s tragicomedy was based on a male playwright from ancient Greece, that hotbed of male-dominated culture, abundant with misogynic mythology. Ironically, Aristophanes’ original play, Lysistrata, was a more feminist variation: Women on both sides of the Peloponnesian War withhold sex to persuade the men to stop fighting, creating a comedy and conflict between genders. The year Labaki’s film was produced and screened, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Liberian female activists who some years ago used sex strikes to persuade men, Christian and Muslim, to oust the dictator and end the civil war, as part of their broader, successful, nonviolent struggle. That same year also, perhaps in one coincidence too many, the French film La Source des femmes (The Source, Radu Mihaileanu) was released. With a pastoral air that starkly resembles Labaki’s village, the film is centered on a similar sex strike, aimed at forcing the men to swap roles and fetch the water from the distant well.
In addition to cannabis and other drugs (Labaki seems oblivious to the fact that the militiamen who perpetrated the Sabra and Shatila massacre were drug-fuelled), Labaki’s women bring in Ukrainian dancers to replace them, assuming they are causing sexual frustration, supposedly the reason for the violence and sectarianism. This is a reactionary and unjustified version, possibly due to censorship, of the idea of using sex to ease tension, a technique female bonobo apes — who live in egalitarian and peaceful communities similar to the village — are known for. In another play by Aristophanes, Ecclesiazusae, the women take over government so that he can probe that hypothetical situation, which is still in question today. Under the title Praxa and the Question of Government, the play was adapted, or rather flattened, by Tawfik al-Hakim, who emphasized the banality of women. (It was produced in 2009 as Praxa, at the Cairo Opera House.)
Both works by the “father of comedy” bear various interpretations. According to some critics, Aristophanes expresses his cynicism and despair toward the possibility of solving the political problem in Lysistrata, and toward human nature and its inability to reach altruism in Ecclesiazusae. Both works are multilayered and multicolored, marked by Aristophanes’ exceptional treatment of the women’s ordeal in the former play, when the war clouds their life and saps it of meaning, and the concept of communalism as a radical solution in the latter. As an intellectual of his time, Aristophanes contributed to the discussion of a progressive role for women.
Going back to the legitimate question of the difference between men and women: Where is the internalization that the three waves of feminism, polarized as they were, have addressed? Aren’t women already saturated with the values of the patriarchy, in control of power, wealth and religion? “I’m not on a mission to empower women,” Labaki answered when asked about her presumed feminism by an interviewer, who adds, “She insists that her subject matter is merely a reflection of what comes naturally to her.” This raises questions about the point of films discussing lesbianism, hymen reconstruction and menopause (Labaki’s Caramel, 2007), and then the role of women in the social peace, while the filmmaker makes light of the idea of a gender cause, not to mention a feminist approach. (The respective challenges posed by the two works can be compared to going from the safety of a swimming pool to the deep blue sea.) Labaki may be a film version of fellow citizen Joumana Haddad, a writer concerned with the body, who has been described as jumping over the feminist struggle and the position of women itself to a vague stage dubbed “post-feminism.” What’s more, empowering women by portraying them positively does not require creating illusions about them. As one critic notes, women sympathizing with each other and renouncing jealousy in Where? is a “serious manipulation of female nature.”
In a book titled Women Who Run With the Wolves (1991), American poet and Jungian Clarissa Pinkola Estés discusses women’s ability to forgive, whether as individual victims or as group members against other groups or populations. Estés emphasizes how diverse women are. She also refers to facing the bare truth as central to the healing process. She then breaks up forgiveness into a fourfold motion, which may vary in length, depending on effort and the person’s awareness of her own limits, while utilizing a variety of overcoming techniques. Womanly tolerance in Where?, however, is a mechanical action taken for granted, readily and collectively available.
The film, then, poses various problems when looked at through the feminist and psychoanalytical film theories. But the main paradox exposed is in light of Laura Mulvey’s seminal essay, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema (published in British film journal Screen in 1975): We have a film made by a woman (though with considerable involvement of male co-writers in the script), representing a female gaze, where the main characters are women, and the men are largely marginal. Yet the filmmaker decides to obliterate the psychological and social experiences of almost all the women. Women’s activity is reduced to a series of practical reactions, by intelligent creatures who somehow fail to set a limit to the agency of men, who have the upper hand.
Surprisingly, and ironically, the role of local clergymen in the film is peaceful and comic. Two lame angels, they flee the crazy village with the dancers in the end, after members from both congregations convert to the other faith. This does not in any way mean rebellion over religion as a factor in the tragedy; it is a mere slight of hand. This confusing approach reminds at best of John Lennon’s song Imagine: religion will disappear and peace will prevail, as if religion is separate from all other forces in the world, and the source of evil and hatred (but somehow though this doesn’t extend to the local clergymen). As for the mayor, representing political authority, he is just a good inert man. There are also no classes in the village, so no interests of any kind, as one critic noted. The conflict is vulgarized into a tragicomedy of situations, so to speak. All hints made as to the role, conflicts and interests of the media are interrupted, as mentioned. The village is not presented as a peaceful society, à la the Amish for example, who have managed somehow to reach a collective formula. So the only function of Labaki’s “utopian” village, as another critic has described it — utopian in a feeble and superficial way, perhaps — is its setting for this fable. Kahloun, the Rahbanis’ famous fictitious village, presented in the musical play Mais al-Reem (The Deer’s Meadow, 1975), was probably more realistic, reasonable and meaningful in comparison, despite being more intensely symbolic. There, two lovers’ families clash on class and tribal grounds.
In Labaki’s fable, evil is just a metaphysical, non-psychological phenomenon. The devil has apparently infiltrated us through male hormones. It solely presents a “phantasmagoric side of the origin of violence,” as one critic explained. But interpreting the film from a discursive or artistic perspective, for instance considering the absurd, is bound to encounter endless discursive masks and elusive flea-style jumps due to the film’s crude focus on style and technique above all. This includes the music and the unrealistic or fantastic elements — from the opening scene — incongruous with the use of non-professional actors and naturalistic acting, making the tone muddled. But while Aristophanes reaches absurd situations and choices, Labaki reaches an absurd solution. Once again, her elusive discourse says everything, one thing and the opposite, or in the best cases, nothing at all.
The only sound value remaining is cathartic venting for the viewers. By turning cinema into a cathartic ritual between bloodsheds, the old, primitive, magical function of art is restored. This is an obsolete role, to say the least, that unfortunately does not serve Labaki’s declared purpose.
Labaki insists that her plot is a fable, and critics seem to agree (see here and here). Yet this film shows how dangerous it can be to base a fable on a historical and social reality that has already been mutilated, and the problems of using a fable format to mask actual discourse for self-censoring and commercial reasons, rather than as an appropriate artistic form.
While the ending promises a hoped-for-future of acculturation, in a radical social transformation expanding the act of solidarity, this future is suspended in the void of an unspoken past, in a way that does not serve the art or the subject matter. Even though the film escapes the war fetish that manifests as historical obsession with detail or as mere graphic violence, it does fall prey to the spectacle of evil. The argument, unfairly criticized by some reviewers, that men destroy and women create, is contorted by a group of women who spoil men to attain a mock peace, and a director who unexpectedly flatters men, for they cannot help their hormones.
Labaki’s declared fear of censorship drives her to portray yet another facile traditional impossible love story between a Muslim man and Christian woman — not the other way round — to avoid hassle. We do not know how much a film of this kind contributes to liberating the filmmaker, or anyone, or how much remains of any illusion she has of “getting away with it.” The relief of avoiding the historical context includes the non-Lebanese, too: starting from France, or “la mère” as some Lebanese call it, from which the two of the film’s producers hail, which was active in Lebanon first as colonist since the beginning of the first civil war between the Druze and Maronites in the mid-nineteenth century, and then since the birth of the nation-state, until today, and perhaps even until the end of time, as neo-colonist.
But Labaki’s problem goes beyond working on a convenient, readymade, poisoned recipe. Her film may after all actually represent her worldview, a view others share too. In an interview, the author of Women Who Run with the Wolves, discussing alleged discrimination against a woman nominee for official post, could be speaking about Labaki: “How foolish for this woman to think she is above the law… You know, there isn’t anything better or worse about being a woman. If women were in charge of everything, there would be women tyrants. If black people were in charge, there would be black tyrants. If Hispanics were in charge, then Hispanic tyrants.”
There is no point to the eponymous question asked by the men carrying the casket at the end of Where Do We Go Now? Neither the eclectically pragmatic women, nor the liberal humanist filmmaker, not to mention the viewers, can come up with an answer, or even a hint of one. Because the first part of the question is omitted: Where from?
Postscript: Four months after this article was originally written, Vivian Magdy, the widowed fiancée of Michael Mosaad, a young man killed in the 2011 Maspero massacre, wrote an article on the the massacre’s third anniversary, titled “The limits of anger and tolerance.” Citing Estés, she relates to the book by arguing that women are being silenced (by clergymen for example in her case) when they are pleaded with for forgiveness, and chooses to remain an angry woman.